Geopolitics has been a subtext of the Havana Biennial ever since its inception in 1984 as a showcase for Cuban and other Latin American art. In 1986, the biennial’s mission expanded to encompass additional Third World countries. By 2012, the 11th Havana Biennial’s global ambitions more nearly resembled the unruly expansiveness of biennials from Venice to São Paulo, as a number of North Americans and Europeans were among the 180 participating artists from 45 countries, according to the organizing Wifredo Lam Center for Contemporary Art.

Works, performances and collateral exhibitions spilled over from La Cabaña, the colonial fortress that has traditionally housed the biennial, exuberantly occupying streets, galleries, schools and theaters, and climbing the outsides of buildings. Despite the broadness of its theme—“Artistic Practices and Social Imaginaries”—the biennial achieved an astonishing coherence, as artists probed the social relevance of their respective practices.

In fits and starts, with trepidation on all sides, change is coming to Cuba, where citizens are finally permitted to buy their own homes and cars. At the art space Fatoria Habana, the collateral exhibition “Las Metàforas del Cambio” (Metaphors of Change) presented the current situation as an evolution, most succinctly expressed in Sandra Ramos’s 2010 video animation Carrera de Relevo (Relay Race). In Ramos’s nimble cartoon condensation of Cuban history, a torch is passed from Columbus to Uncle Sam, Lenin and—as a crowd cheers—a schoolgirl version of Ramos herself, who fumbles and maybe catches it (though that’s not entirely clear).

Art as conceptual critique is the lingua franca of Cuban artists, who give it a political edge. Yoan Capote showed a bronze chair deformed by handcuffs in “HB,” one of the biennial’s most compelling collateral exhibitions. In a vacant lot where petitioners for U.S. visas congregate, the Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto pitched Circo Triste (Sad Circus), a melancholy installation of two blue tents, one big and lined with makeshift bleachers that had once witnessed—or would never witness—jubilant activity, the other crammed with stored chairs and tools and a radio from which Fidel Castro blared interminably.

The sea and craft capable of breaching the island’s isolation are often marshaled as metaphors in a nation where internet access is a rarity. One of Kcho’s assemblages, increasingly decorative variations on boats and oars, was fitted neatly into a niche in the outer wall of La Cabaña. Inside the building, Hanoi Perez affixed 149 monoprints of delicately colored fish to an arched ceiling, so that viewers moving beneath felt as though they were submerged in the ocean, to chilling effect. In “HB,” Capote also displayed sketches for a flotilla of phosphorescent suitcases that he proposes to float between Havana and Florida.

At her exhibition “Puentes” (Bridges) at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Sandra Ramos devised a metaphor for the waters that separate families, erecting a bridge on which viewers trod upon photographs of streets and seascapes from Havana to Miami. (In addition, Ramos’s catalogue was in the form of a passport.) Elsewhere at the museum, Abel Barroso handily folded irony into folk art, riffing on the hurdles that First World nations erect against immigration. At Barroso’s interactive Pinball del emigrante (Immigrant’s Pinball), viewers tried hitting balls up an “immigrant ramp” in working pinball machines made of carved and incised wood.

Fidel Castro launched the Cuban revolution with a boat ride from Mexico; subsequently, flight by water has meant possible death. In this context, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s Ship of Tolerance took on particular relevance. The Soviet-born, U.S. artists have launched versions of their ship at locales from Sharjah to Miami. At each site, local schoolchildren create paintings that the Kabakovs fashion into sails. In Cuba, they made a point of including U.S. and Russian children, and staged a joint orchestral concert as an integral event. While the U.S. Treasury initially balked at issuing the necessary permits, five U.S. teenagers were allowed to perform. The Russians, by contrast, who have their own bridges to rebuild after disastrously abandoning Cuba following the collapse of the Soviet Union, wholeheartedly embraced the project. This led to what was surely the biennial’s most bizarre moment. On the day after their moving public performance, the young musicians played again at the Russian Embassy. Standingunder six Soviet-era chandeliers, they were backlit by wall-to-wall stained glass windows. From the middle window, as if in a time warp, Lenin stared down.

Photos: (left) View of Sandra Ramos’s 90 Miles, 2011, photographs in lightboxes, aluminum, 29 1/2
feet long. (right) Yoan Capote: Dogma, 2011, bronze and handcuffs, 34 by 17 by 17 inches. Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery and Galeria Habana, Cuba. Photos in the Havana Biennial.